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When it comes to predator control, balancing biology and the desires of hunters is a tricky task

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 13, 2019
  • Published December 13, 2019

The predator control program in Unit 13 was first authorized in 1999. The Board of Game has always struggled with the objective of providing enough moose to keep a demanding hunting public satisfied, and therein lies the unsolvable problem.

More than 500,000 members of the Alaska population can reach Unit 13 by highway vehicle. There are a lot of potential hunters in that number. Many of them want a moose, some think they are entitled to a moose, and there are a few who actually need a moose.

Biology cares nothing for any of these hunters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists are faced with the impossible task of balancing biology and want. Thus, we are again faced with selective predator control in Unit 13.

The target area is Unit 13B and, of course, the easy subject is the wolf.

All studies point at brown bears taking 50% of all moose calves in the first six weeks of their lives. Brown bear seasons in Unit 13 have been liberalized as far as is able. The bear harvest has been at a level far above what any previous study deemed sustainable for a number of years with no noticeable reduction in bear numbers.

That leaves the wolf. To some, the answer is a no-brainer: remove wolves and you have more moose to shoot at.

Ahh, if only game management were that simple, then everybody could do it. Instead, the Glennallen area is on its third biologist in the last half-dozen years. Much money is spent on studies. Most are important and yield decent results as far as they go. We count wolves, we count moose, we count caribou. We analyze browse.

None of the counts are totally accurate in themselves, but given count data over many years in the same area, the information is valuable. However, each sub-unit within Unit 13 has a moose population objective defined by what is considered to be a sustainable population within that particular sub-unit. There is also a little “I want” tossed in. A portion of the population objective is determined by what is considered to be necessary for subsistence and general hunting.

You can make numbers and harvest objectives work well when sitting at the table. It is not so easy while walking the Maclaren River Valley and across the Alphabet Hills in December on snowshoes. Then the world seems not quite so simple.

The snow along the Alaska Range is deeper than it has been in a number of years. There is more than four feet north of Paxson. The moose that haven’t moved out are dragging their bellies. There might be excellent browse along the upper edge of the range, but it matters little if there are no moose to munch on it.

This begs another question. Is it better for a moose to starve or be eaten by a wolf? Either way there is no moose. When a pack of wolves kills a moose, they eat some of it. The ravens that follow every wolf pack get their share. The foxes that live in the area see the ravens and also garner their part of the protein. Thus runs the ecosystem.

Should the moose starve, a different scenario develops. The dead moose freezes solid. Ravens may find it, but cannot break the hide. Same for foxes. The moose is there until the spring thaw.

This is not guesswork. This is 50 years on the ground seeing this happen.

I am not opposed to aerial wolf control. However, it is very hard to make the case that shooting an extra few dozen wolves will solve the moose population deficit in Unit 13B. The arbitrary boundaries drawn on a map do not define an independent ecosystem. There was aerial wolf control in this area last year and it resulted in a very low moose harvest this season. That was not the hoped-for result.

You need only to look at the caribou count from a couple of seasons past. We have 55,000 caribou, then we have only 30,000, then we have 55,000. Counts are not perfect. Winter weather and calf crops cannot be perfectly defined. The point is, game management is not a perfect science. It is a best-guess based on the information available. The opinions of biologists are being balanced against the “I must haves” of user groups. We need game management, not politics.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.